Trunk tales -- lessons in elephant management

If you own an elephant and don’t know how to keep it happy, you could learn a few lessons from Parbati Barua, Asia’s only female mahout (elephant handler).

Did you know that elephants have a “sour tooth”, with a particular liking for tamarind? Or that they enjoy a daily, hour-long massage, preferably in a circular motion with a pumice stone?

It’s important to give them regular pedicures because they only have sweat glands in their feet, so the area around the nails must be cleaned of secretions. And their daily bath must be accompanied with a thorough massage to scrub away the dirt, or else they tend to spray themselves with dust.

Barua, 53 and barely five-feet-tall, knows her elephants well.

She lassoed her first wild elephant at the age of 14. “You need a little luck and the instinct to read the animal’s mind.
Catching an elephant is not about strength,” she said.

The diminutive wild elephant catcher recently taught 150 mahouts in the northwestern desert state of Rajasthan about elephant management, an initiative of the government’s tourism department and animal welfare group Help In Suffering (HIS) in capital city Jaipur.

The venue was the 16th century Amber Fort, built by Hindu Rajput kings and an architectural marvel on a hillside that overlooks a lake. Few tourists opt for the 10 minute walk up to the fort. Most enjoy making a grand entrance on elephant-back.

Amber Fort employs 103 elephants, with a one-way trip for four people per elephant costing 450 rupees ($10). A bulk of the fee (325 rupees) goes to the elephant owner. For working eight hours a day, the elephant only gets 20 rupees for its welfare fund.

In a city where temperatures average 40ºC through most of the year, the animals suffer from dehydration, upset stomachs, sunburn, foot sores, ulcers, cracked nails from walking on hot asphalt and blindness caused by poor nutrition.

“Captive elephants live longer than those in the wild, with a life span of 60-70 years. Most start working at 25 and retire at 55, so it’s important to keep them healthy,” said HIS veterinarian Madhulal.

HIS holds regular elephant health camps at Amber Fort and even has an elephant ambulance.

Mahouts need training on how to keep their elephants fit, how to ride them, how to use the ankush (spear-like device to control the elephant) and gear (cotton ropes tied around the elephant’s neck to control its movements),” said Pavan Jain, assistant director in the tourism department.

Barua said, “An elephant is a very loving animal. In Assam, (the northeastern Indian state where she lives) we bring them up like our children - we love them, hit them and shout at them.” “But, no matter how long we keep an elephant with us, in its heart it is a wild animal and some of that wildness remains. We must always remember this and be careful of it. An elephant can’t be domesticated.”

Barua gave lessons in tying a howdah or seat on which the tourists sit, and the most humane way of using the kilawa or gear. She also devised a unique calculation system for the weight of a howdah based on the height and age of an elephant.

“They are nocturnal animals and it is cruel to make them work long hours during the day. It’s not that we shouldn’t entertain tourists, because it’s a question of livelihood and survival for the mahouts, but we should treat the animals better,” Barua told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa.

Talukas, a forest officer from Assam, gave mahouts cleanliness tips. “Only good bathing techniques will keep them free from skin diseases. It is not good enough to splash water on them, you have to work hard and massage them.”

Shahid Khan, a mahout with five elephants, said “Our family has been in the elephant business for generations. I am a specialist in Ayurveda, and introduced chooran (a digestive powder) in their diet. The training was good because we got to share our problems. I also learnt about the importance of scrubbing an elephant.”

Barua said the mahout-elephant bond is based on unconditional trust and understanding. “Elephants are sensitive and cultured. They are my only family.”—Sapa

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